Though he never went to drama school, as the son of two actors, Jack Davenport was always going to go into acting himself. After a year out performing with Theatr Clywd and a degree in English Literature and Film Studies, he had his first – albeit non-speaking – film role playing a zookeeper in 1997’s Fierce Creatures.
His big break came a year later when he landed the role of barrister Miles in the BBC TV series This Life, which became a cult hit. He followed that up on the small screen with several series of the award-winning BBC comedy, Coupling, as well as appearances in Ultra-violet, The Wyvern Mystery, The Asylum, Eroica, Miss Marple and Mary Bryant.
On film, Davenport’s credits have included The Talented Mr Ripley, The Wedding Date, The Libertine and - alongside Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom - the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the second of which is released this summer.
On stage, Davenport has been seen in The Servant, Lady Windermere's Fan and Toby Young’s one-man play How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. He has returned to the stage this month to appear as part of an ensemble cast in Michael Attenborough’s production of Maxim Gorky’s Enemies, in a new version by David Hare at the Almeida Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born 1 March 1973 in Suffolk.
Lives now in
What made you want to become an actor?
I’m an only child and my parents were both actors (Maria Aitken and Nigel Davenport). When I was growing up, there were lots of actors around. I thought actors were fun people. They never spoke down to me in a patronising way, probably because, by their nature, actors are quite childish. At school, I did a lot of plays and I got some fantastic parts – Hamlet at 16, which is ridiculously over the top for someone of that age. I didn’t know what I was saying. So yes, my background being what it is, I didn’t know any better so I condemned myself to a lifetime of insecurity and self-loathing (he laughs).
I didn’t train. When I left school, I took a year off and worked professionally at Theatr Clwyd and spent virtually my whole year off, when you’re meant to be travelling the world, dressed up in tights and having a great time touring the country in various productions. I had a place at University of East Anglia, and I thought, I’m probably, or possibly, going to spend a large part of my adult life doing this (acting) anyway, do I really want to miss this opportunity to study as I have this place? And it was related, I was doing film and English, I wasn’t doing anthropology or natural sciences. I thought it would be a good chance to just not do what I always do. Outside of studying - haha - from the age of about 14 to 19, most of my free time was spent doing plays. Of course, I got to university and for the first two terms, there was a play in each term. I finally stopped and made myself do other things, and then I came out and I got work, so I was lucky.
First big break
I would say that would be This Life; I was 22 when that started. I had done a bit of theatre professionally, I had done one film in which I didn’t speak, and then I got that. So, yeah, it would have to be that. I did enjoy it.
I loved doing The Servant with Neil Bartlett at the Lyric Hammersmith. Later, I saw Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words and got slightly depressed because, however good I thought ours was, that was one of the best pieces of theatre I’d seen for a long time. It’s a vicious story, it’s not pretty, but I loved doing that, I really did. Film-wise, The Talented Mr Ripley is a film that still stands up - it’s one for people’s video collections, if you know what I mean. What it’s really about is what it means to be excluded, and I think everyone knows what that feels like deep down. We’ve all had moments in our lives when we haven’t been in the gang. And I think it’s probably one of the best performances Matt Damon’s ever given. One of the brilliances of Matt’s performance is that he’s both sinister and charmingly goofy and awkward and gauche. It’s not a Hollywood movie star performance, it’s very unattractive in lots of ways, and I thought that was really brave of him. The Pirates of the Caribbean films are highlights, just for the fact they’re a laugh and 150 million earth dwellers can’t be wrong.
Favourite stage productions
I wouldn’t say enjoyed necessarily is the word, but I did a one-man show at Soho Theatre, the Toby Young play based on his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. When I say enjoyed is not the word, it’s just that a one-man show is really scary. I mean, there’s no safety net really in theatre, period. But when there isn’t even another actor to look you in the eye if you’re not quite sure what happens next…. I still can’t quite work out what sort of dreadful combination of ego and hubris made me think, “yes, myself alone on a stage for an hour, people will love it”. But it seemed to work, up to a point. It was a rollercoaster ride. With a one-man show, there is an absolutely horrifying moment when you get your final call. And also it’s pretty immediate with comedy, whether or not it’s working, because either they laugh or they don’t. So not only are you going, “Christ, I’ve got an hour of this”, but if there’s tumbleweed, what the F are you going to do? As it was, it was packed every night and people seemed to like it. And we got some good reviews and we got some stinking reviews. Toby (who’s bald) at one point suggested I might shave my head, but I was like, “you’re alright, not for a three-week run at Soho Theatre, no”. I was never going to try and do a physical impression of him. What I think is fantastic about Toby is he’s extremely funny as a writer. His journalism either makes you laugh or throw the newspaper across the room. That book of his is part of a proud tradition of British narratives of total failure. It takes someone with a fair degree of self-awareness and, indeed, an ability to send oneself up, to even write a book like that. And I quite like loser narratives.
David Mamet, I adore. Obviously Billy Shakes (ie Shakespeare). Brian Friel, I like, Sean O'Casey. I quite like Samuel Beckett occasionally. Some of Beckett I find impenetrable, but I appreciate the form-changing that he’s responsible for. I actually really like Neil Bartlett as a playwright. I suppose he’s more of an adaptor, but he does so much to the plays that you can almost say he re-writes them as opposed to just editing them. I like his vicious, dark, horrible world view. I seem to like things dark.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
One of the best things I’ve ever seen was Mark Rylance’s Hamlet, which I saw about six times when I was 15. I just became obsessed. I do think Rylance is one of the great stage actors of our times. Recently, Aristocrats at the National was good, I enjoyed that a lot. And actually that last thing that was on here but one at the Almeida, The Late Henry Moss. You always get a bit nervous when Shepard or Mamet is done by British actors, but I thought it was really, really good.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give us some money. Theatre is meant to be one of the so-called cultural jewels in Britain’s crown. The lack of funding in general is atrocious, especially in provincial theatres. God knows, wonderful places like West Yorkshire Playhouse do all they can to get people through their doors, and even places like Pitlochry. It’s an absolute struggle. I was on holiday in Scotland last year, and my wife (the Green Wing actress Michelle Gomez) and I went to Pitlochry to see a show because we were so nearby. Their thing is you can see six different shows in six days - which must be a nightmare for the company - but we walked in and we were the only people under 60. Unless we encourage young people to go, theatre is going to die.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I think it would be in the same area, I’m probably not good for much else. I have produced the odd short film, I write a bit, I’ve got various things that I’m sort of developing and have been over time. The usual really. I don’t want to be the 9,000th actor this week to say what I’d really like to do is direct, because it’s not what I’d really like to do. But I think it’s one of the things that, if one does have an ambition to direct and has spent a certain amount of time as an actor, it can be helpful. So I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll be doing a plumbing course anytime soon.
If you could swap places with someone (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Miles Davis. It would be fun to be able to blow like that, wouldn’t it?
A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving. And another one I read quite recently called The People’s Act of Love by James Meek. That’s wonderful.
What made you want to return to the stage now?
I haven’t done any theatre for a while, because I haven’t been able to. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always felt that theatre is the only medium where, as an actor, you can get better, in the sense that it’s an evolving thing and you get more than one crack at it. And also there’s the very process of just rehearsing. I would guess that, over the past three years, I have probably rehearsed for only about 18 minutes, because that’s the nature of film and television. You decide more or less what you are going to do beforehand. You arrive, you block it and you do it. What you’re really being asked to do is find the quickest, most efficient path from point A to point B. If you can do that without much help, they are more than grateful. It’s not necessarily the format where you can do a lot of experimenting. Theatre is an actor’s medium as opposed to a director’s medium because, once it starts, we are in control. Lovely though it is to be able to spend time on great big posh film sets, I think this sort of stage work is what keeps you honest.
Why did you want to do this production of Enemies in particular?
Enemies is hardly ever done, and yet it is a fantastic play, partly because Maxim Gorky was around about the same time as Chekhov, whose shadow looms fairly large. In his own way, Gorky had powerful things to say about the society he was living in; thematically the play is pretty relevant today in terms of big social changes and how people react to them. It’s set in 1905, so there are lots of changes going on in Russian society and the ferment foreshadows what happened in 1917. Of course, it’s political: the working class agitators, the land-owning classes and factory owners knew that change was bound to come and would cost a lot in terms of human lives.
Tell us about your character Yakov Bardin.
The Bardins are landed gentry who have got into bed with a slightly more middle class family, the Skrobotovs, and have sold their land on which to build a factory. Yakov is the younger brother, he’s the spare to the heir (Zakhar, played by Sean Chapman). My character doesn’t have much purpose in life. He’s an alcoholic but, despite that, at a moment when all of these people are having to face up to new realities, because he’s removed himself from life choices, he has a strange kind of clarity about what’s going on. Call him a nihilist, but he does speak more truth than any of the others, partly because he’s pissed for most of the time. He knows that, once the forces of history start, you can’t stop them. I like him. There’s that slightly self-pitying aspect that can be apparent in someone who, through self-indulgence, has made a mess of himself, but he’s extremely intelligent and he has a lack of restraint which, in a way, is admirable.
What has David Hare contributed to this new version?
The play was translated by a young woman literally from the Russian and David made it a bit more sayable. I’m a great fan of his. Frankly, I’d pay to watch him do his laundry. He has always been able to make plays appear relevant without being preachy or piously political. He’s done that with this - and his words are lovely words to say.
How is Enemies relevant today?
Because it asks what it’s like to be part of a society where the have-nots have had enough and are starting to make there unhappiness abundantly clear. Not that we’re on the brink of revolution in the UK, but there is a massively disenfranchised underclass in this country and we are not doing enough about it. That can be said about all Western democracies. We all like to pat ourselves on the back about how civilised we are, but on a certain level we are not. That’s probably where the parallels kick in. Am I political? I am completely allergic to actors sounding off about what they think about ‘issues’, if only because those opinions might well be half–formed and it’s sometimes the wrong platform. I am promoting a play not telling people what’s right and wrong.
What are your future plans?
To have a bit of a lie down. After this, I have to join the Pirates of the Caribbean publicity charabanc and head out and start selling that thing to the world. It’s not such a huge commitment for me because I’m not Johnny Depp or Keira Knightley, but I have to do a certain amount of it. I don’t mind. They spend a lot of money on these films, and they want their money back so they send us out there. It’s released in July. We’ll see how this one goes before I make plans to return to the stage again. I always try to come back. One of the reasons I’m doing Enemies is because it’s been a while. You know, economy dictates that you have to take jobs that pay your mortgage rather than satisfy you. It’s a practical thing, not a design thing.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This production really is a collective effort – a fabulous cast of 20 actors all pulling together in the same direction. And it works. Sometimes it’s nice for audiences to see something that isn’t a vehicle for one particular person. There’s the novelty here of seeing a great big ensemble show that isn’t a musical. We don’t have Mary Poppins flying across the stage but we are making a serious comment.
- Jack Davenport was speaking to Terri Paddock
Enemies continues until 24 June 2006 at the Almeida Theatre.